restricted access Unpacking the Z Survival Kit
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Unpacking the Z Survival Kit

The interweaving of disaster preparedness and dystopian fantasy is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the marketing of “zombie survival kits”—assemblages of food, medicine, tools and sometimes weaponry that can serve as the type of “go-bag” Americans are all urged to have at the ready in the increasingly routine event of an emergency. In the wake of Superstorm Sandy (2012), snapshots of vans labeled “Zombie Outbreak Response Vehicle” allegedly seen in the vicinity of disaster sites made the rounds of social media. Why does such a conflation of a real threat and an imaginary one hold such peculiar appeal? What role does capitalism play in libidinizing the imagination of disaster and in the process marketing to us our own impending demise?

A zombie survival kit or zombie outbreak response vehicle might indeed come in handy in the event of an actual hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or terrorist attack. But this efficacy does not make the zombie outbreak itself any less fictive, any less virtual. What in the kit, or about it, explains its efficacy? The kit, I would suggest, is valuable less for its contents and more for the process of its assembly. Planning your survival in the zombie apocalypse, acquiring the needed accoutrements for your future dystopic autarchy, developing the skills to develop and defend it—all this might look like overkill, but who is really to say? What from one angle looks like jejune roleplaying in the face of serious catastrophe could, from another angle, look precisely like the deliberate merging of fact and fiction into a single, speculative realism. Such at least seems to be the implicit premise of such contemporary zombie narratives like The Walking Dead (2003–present) that draw in and direct attention not so much to the dreaded event, but rather to the doomed landscape beyond, the post-apocalyptic survivalism where, as one character exclaims to a rag-tag band of humans: “We are the walking dead!”

The Walking Dead is a comic book created by writer Robert Kirkman and artist Tony Moore. First appearing in 2003, the book has passed the 100th issue mark and been re-released in a variety of collected editions. In 2010, a television series based on the comic book premiered on the AMC cable channel. While the television series has drawn the lion’s share of the audience, an analysis of the comic books and graphic novels is slightly more apropos to a discussion that opens with the zombie survival kit. The subcultural associations of survivalist masculine fantasy shade into the audience for comic books like The Walking Dead, even if the actual demographic overlap between its readership and the target market for zombie survival kits is something best left to more empirically minded scholars to ascertain. Certainly the protagonist of The Walking Dead—police officer Rick Grimes—is a veritable archetype of “boys own stories,” whether set on the Western frontier, the postapocalyptic metropolis, or even outer space. That his zombie survival kit is unpacked within the specific medium of the comic book is thus relevant to specifying the cultural work that this narrative is able to do, even before it is taken up in the more heavily capitalized circuits of a cable network.

This cultural work is particular to the aesthetics of comics, as we are reminded by Scott McCloud in his germinal work, Understanding Comics (1993). While problematically identifying the highly abstract rendering of the human face in comic book art with a universalizing of the capacity to identify with and as the white male protagonist (in his rendering, even a smiley face is an abstraction from white masculinity), McCloud’s account can open up readings he could not anticipate. That is, the very mechanism that yokes a radically simplified face to the sovereign white masculine subject untethers that subject from its own gaze and position and releases it into a serial art form saturated with apostrophe and the free indirect image.

I mean here to call attention to McCloud’s argument that the abstraction of the cartoon facilitates identification not only through typification, but also through an affective projection. The radically simplified cartoon face...